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a blog by Fr. Stuart MacDonald, JCL,

Ought Biden and Broten Be Excommunicated?

Comments on the issue of abortion by American Vice-President Joseph Biden and Ontario Education Minister Laurel Broten, both Catholics (at least reportedly so in the case of Broten), have raised questions about whether or not they are liable to penal sanction according to canon law.  Note immediately that we are not speaking of whether or not they should approach, or should be given, Holy Communion.  Cardinal Burke and Dr. Edward Peters have already explored those issues with erudition and profound insight. Here the question is whether or not Biden’s or Broten’s public comments, and/or  voting records, constitute delicts in the Church.

In a nutshell, the question is does the publicly oft-stated belief by a Catholic that a woman has a right to choose an abortion (i.e., as a Catholic I accept the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life from the moment of conception, and on the sinfulness of abortion, but I do not think we can force others to accept that position by making abortion illegal) constitute an act of heresy (c. 751)?  Notice I did not say the delict of heresy.  In order to determine whether or not the delict has occurred, we must determine what constitutes the act of heresy.  If it is a heresy to believe that we may not take away a woman’s right to choose, then certainly Biden and Broten have committed the delict.  But is it a heresy?, in an article on the Education Minister’s outrageous claim that taking away a woman’s right to choose could constitute the worst form of misogyny, asserts that the “Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear that pro-life teaching necessitates taking away the so-called ‘woman’s right to choose’”.  It then goes on to make a connection between respecting human life from the moment of conception to the penalty for procuring an abortion.  Not so fast!  While LIfeSite is to be commended for making us aware of important issues, they are doing a disservice to the Church by such shoddy theology and canonical thinking.  The fact that a Catholic may sin gravely in her pro-choice beliefs, public statements or voting records, does not mean she is liable to excommunication according to c. 1398 (abortion).

Be careful here.  We are not talking about the morality of abortion, we are talking about obligations of Catholic in public office.  Heresy is the obstinate denial of a divinely revealed truth.  Do the moral norms concerning the civic responsibilities of Catholics constitute divinely revealed truths? By voting for an unjust law is divinely revealed truth denied?  Perhaps.  That is a question for moral theologians, not canonists.  Blessed Pope John Paul II taught that it is licit to vote for a law which allows abortion, but limits its previous availability (Evangelium vitae, no. 74). These are difficult issues.  The morality of the grave obligation of public officials to bear witness to their Catholic faith is distinct from the morality of abortion.  To deny the immorality of abortion is certainly a heresy.  To deny the obligation of bearing public witness to the faith is not so clearly an instance of heresy.  It’s a clear instance of sin, but it certainly needs to be argued how it constitutes heresy.

The point is that, while people are rightly upset by politicians, objectively not in full communion with the Church, spouting their muddled thinking with no consequence, it is wrong to make the jump that they ought to be excommunicated.  That’s not the law of the Church as it exists now.

Are there other penal remedies available?  Most certainly.  Canon 1399 exists to provide for those cases not specifically envisioned in the law in which divine or canon law is broken and the gravity of the situation demands the repair or prevention of scandal.  Certainly it is a cause for concern when the Vice-President of the United States peddles his beliefs that his Catholic faith is merely a private affair.  How many Catholics has he led down the same fuzzy-thinking path?  That’s scandal in the canonical sense.  Is excommunication an answer, even in this case?  Well, ultimately that’s up to the Ordinary.  But beware that canon law also states that censures, like excommunication, are to be enacted  with the greatest moderation and only for the more grave offenses (c. 1318).  The Code also states that a penal procedure is to be undertaken only when no other remedy, pastoral, canonical or otherwise, would be effective (c. 1341).

It is important to be clear about the law.  Emotions run high when important people say ridiculous things.  But we must be careful not to jump to hasty conclusions.  Of course, I’m always open to correction

Not Exactly Canonical but Important

Several months ago, the government of the Province of Ontario passed a law (known as Bill 13) about bullying in schools — at least that’s it in a nutshell.  In Ontario, there are two publicly funded schools systems: one Catholic (or as we say sometimes, the Separate School System) the other, well, public (the Public School System, as we say).  It has a long, complicated history that goes back to the founding of Canada, and the English/French, Catholic/Protestant issues.  In any case, there exist in Ontario Catholic schools funded by tax-payers that go from JK to Gr. 12.  Apart from the myriad of problems which plague us in trying to maintain our Catholic identity and fidelity in our modern Catholic world, the schools are Catholic.  Masses are celebrated, prayers are said, crucifixes are on the walls and the curriculum is Catholic.  Until now.

With the passage of Bill 13, Catholic schools must, by law, prevent discrimination of, and provide a safe environment for, people with same-sex attraction, even when they self-identify as gay, with all of those ramifications.  The Bishops of Ontario have been working assiduously to navigate this minefield.  Last Wednesday, the minefield suddenly became much more dangerous.

The Minister of Education for the Province of Ontario made comments to the press suggesting that Catholic schools should not be teaching that abortion is wrong because it is a violation of the government’s newly-enacted anti-bullying legislation.  “We do not allow and we’re very clear with the passage of Bill 13 that Catholic teachings cannot be taught in our schools that violates human rights and which brings a lack of acceptance to participation in schools,” she said when asked if it’s okay for the schools to encourage pro-life rallies.

The Minister stated: “Bill 13 has in it a clear indication of ensuring that our schools are safe, accepting places for all our students,”  “That includes of LGBTQ students. That includes young girls in our school. Bill 13 is about tackling misogyny, taking away a woman’s right to choose could arguably be one of the most misogynistic actions that one could take.”

Those are serious statements and these are serious times.  As I am writing this, I received news that the Premier of Ontario resigned last night, not over this issue.

Those are not canonical considerations, stricte dictu, and I have never intended this blog to turn into mere commentary about Catholic issues; however, this issue does affect the inherent right of the Church, independent of any human authority, to preach the Gospel (c. 747.1) and to proclaim moral principles (c. 747.2)  I jokingly mention to my bishop occasionally that he gets a pointy hat and big bucks to solve these problems.  But this is no joking matter.  We need to pray for the bishops of Ontario.  This is the stuff of saints and martyrs.

Rector Anecdote

This week, one of the priests of the diocese was ordained bishop.  I noted with some satisfaction the following excerpt from the Holy Father’s bull nominating the new bishop:

To Our beloved Son…of the clergy of the Diocese of Saint Catharines in Ontario, where he has been serving as…Parish Priest of the Cathedral Church…

Even though we’ve been calling him the rector of the Cathedral for years , the Holy Father, who is the Supreme Legislator, knows that, canonically speaking, he was a pastor.  (Still is!, just of a different sort.)  There will be exceptions, of course, but most priests running cathedral churches have the full power of a pastor because they are one.

These pages are likely to be silent for the next month.  I finish up at my parish this weekend and then leave for a some holidays before I begin my duties at Wyoming Catholic College.  Once I am settled into my digs, I’ll start blogging again.


A reader asked me to explain canon 776.  It was good for me to re-read this canon, as a departing pastor, because it confirms something that I have sought to do for the last seven years.  Here is the text of the canon:

Can. 776 By virtue of his function, a pastor is bound to take care of the catechetical formation of adults, youth, and children, to which purpose he is to use the help of the clerics attached to the parish, of members of institutes of consecrated life and of societies of apostolic life, taking into account the character of each institute, and of lay members of the Christian faithful, especially of catechists. None of these are to refuse to offer their help willingly unless they are legitimately impeded. The pastor is to promote and foster the function of parents in the family catechesis mentioned in can. 774, §2.

Can. 774 §1. Under the direction of legitimate ecclesiastical authority, solicitude for catechesis belongs to all members of the Church according to each one’s role.

§2. Parents above others are obliged to form their children by word and example in faith and in the practice of Christian life; sponsors and those who take the place of parents are bound by an equal obligation.

Specifically, the reader wished to know what is meant by the obligation of members of the Church being obliged to assist with catechesis unless they are legitimately impeded.  It’s a very interesting question.  As we see from canon 774, part of catechesis is simply the way we live and speak.  Obviously, every member of Christ’s faithful is obliged to live a life worthy of their calling.  This canon is pointing out that the pastor, specifically, must ensure that the souls entrusted to him receive formation in the faith.  Obviously he cannot do that alone: he needs help.  The canon points out that parochial vicars, religious, and lay people may all be called upon to assist the pastor in this important work.  The are to do so willingly.  It would be a rough life for a pastor is one of the priests assigned to his parish refused to prepare children for their first Holy Communion, for example.  In this day of priest shortages, there is a greater onus on the lay faithful to take up their rightful role in catechesis.  Therefore, if the pastor asks you to help, then please help!  How could one be legitimately impeded?  All sorts of ways.  A religious sister who teaches full-time in a Catholic school, might not have extra time to take on catechism classes for the pastor: she has other obligations with her community.  A father of several children, might not be free on Thursday evenings to assist with RCIA.  I don’t think the canon is suggesting that the pastor has the right to compel the lay faithful to do his bidding in this regard; rather, it is suggesting that everyone should see it as a duty to help in catechesis and the spreading of the faith.  That’s off the top of my head.  There are probably many more important nuances.  Unfortunately, all my canon law books are packed in boxes right now.

Of Crime and Punishment

I’m sure we’ve all been reading with some sense of horror the news about the publication of private letters and documents allegedly stolen by the Holy Father’s butler.  Leaving aside the details, it is interesting to note that the Holy See has a whole process of criminal law. The butler has been charged, and was held in custody at the behest of the Vatican City State’s Promoter of Justice (not to be confused with the Promoters of Justice of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and the Apostolic Signatura).  Thankfully, we don’t hear about it often; however, as an independent entity, the Vatican functions just like any other country with police, courts, judges and all.

In a similar, but distinct, vein, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a notification last week regarding a book on sexuality by Sr. Margaret A. Farley, R.S.M.  The Congregation warned the faithful that Sr. Farley’s book, Just Love. A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, “is not in conformity with the teaching of the Church.”  It is a brilliantly nuanced document which deserves careful reading.  What is interesting, from a canonical perspective, is that Sr. Farley does not seem to be disciplined in any way.  Her book, “affirms positions that are in direct contradiction with Catholic teaching in the field of sexual morality,” and consequently, “cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching.”  But she, as a result of publishing her views and refusing to clarify them to the satisfaction of the Church, has not been penalised publicly.

Canon 751 defines heresy as, “the obstinate denial or doubt, after baptism, of a truth which must be believed by divine and catholic faith.”  So, then, what is a truth which must be believed by divine and catholic faith?  Canon 750 gives us the answer (my emphasis):

Those things are to be believed by divine and catholic faith which are contained in the word of God as it has been written or handed down by tradition, that is, in the single deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and which are at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church, or by its ordinary and universal magisterium, which is manifested by the common adherence of Christ’s faithful under the guidance of the sacred magisterium. All are therefore bound to shun any contrary doctrines.

The question becomes, do any of the propositions held by Sr. Farley constitute an act of heresy?  And if they do, is she punishable by canon 1364 which states that a heretic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication?  The reason I pose the question is because it is sometimes heard, “why doesn’t the Church excommunicate dissenters and heretics?”  The answer is: she does! Just not in the manner in which some would like.  There are no grand processions of the Inquisitor, with candles turned upside down to the cries of anathema sit!

The notification points out that some of Sr. Farley’s opinions contradict the Magisterium of the Church (the authentic one, not the Magisterium of Nuns – of Fr. Z fame).  Her opinion on masturbation contradicts the Magisterium’s “course of a constant tradition;” her opinions, on homosexual acts being justifiable, contradict tradition, based on Sacred Scripture, which teaches that such acts are intrinsically disordered.

Now this is really a question for a theologian; but, could we say that these Church teachings which Sr. Farley’s opinions contradict, are to be believed by divine and catholic faith?   Remember not only must the teaching be handed down by tradition but it must also be proposed as divinely revealed. To answer that is the competence of a theologian.  If the teachings on masturbation and homosexual acts are considered to be divinely revealed, then Sr. Farley, in holding contrary opinions which she has refused to abjure, is guilty of the sin of heresy.  Here we must distinguish.  Has she committed only the sin of heresy? Or also the delict of heresy?  Every delict is a sin, but not every sin is a delict.  If she has committed the sin of heresy (in other words, in her mind and will she refuses to believe with divine and catholic faith the Church’s teaching on masturbation and homosexual acts) and has coupled that with manifesting the sin outwardly (by publishing her opinions in a book), then she has committed the delict of heresy (all things being equal).  In virtue of canon 1364, she would be excommunicated.  The Church doesn’t need to declare it publicly; although, the Church could.  The excommunication happens automatically.

Why the Church has chosen not to publicly declare an excommunication, which it threatened to do in the case of Father Tissa Balasuriya, OMI, is not mine to answer.  Perhaps it is connected to whether or not these teachings of the Church are divinely revealed or not.  Perhaps it is a prudential decision of the Church. But the point is that the Church does deal with dissenters.  It has now warned the faithful that her book is not an expression of Catholic teaching.  If she is guilty of heresy, then she is excommunicated.  She has been dealt with.

Just as criminal law (even in the Vatican) is complicated, so, too, is canon law in these matters.  The Church doesn’t throw around her power, she is a mother – firm when she needs to be, prudent in her judgment, but always seeking the truth for the good of her children.  And let’s thank God that there are competent people handling all these difficult situations.  And don’t forget to pray for them, too.  Suddenly, the cranky parishioner who wants to know why the flowers aren’t arranged differently in the sanctuary seems so much easier to handle!

Cathedral Rectors

It has been a busy few weeks for me in the parish and it looks like things will only get busier as Forty Hours Devotions begin this evening in preparation for our Corpus Christi procession.  Then it will be on to closing school Masses and graduations with a few weddings thrown in before I begin packing my belongings to undertake a new assignment.  So, in the meantime, I will answer a few questions that have come my way and make a plug for a fine group of men with whom I spent a few days visiting: the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius in Chicago.  I was with them for some tutoring in how to celebrate the Missa cantata in the extraordinary form.  The canons are a vibrant young community involved in many activities.  One of them is offering workshops which train priests and seminarians how to celebrate and serve the extraordinary form.  It is an invaluable service to the Church.  They do it well, without any fussiness, without any pretension, simply out of a love for the liturgy in both forms (both of which they offer with extraordinary splendour and beauty in their parish church.)  You can find more on their web site:

One reader asked me about the duties of a Cathedral rector.  This title is a bit of a misnomer.  Sometimes the priest who is given charge of the Cathedral is called a rector.  It seems to be an honourary title because he is the pastor of the Cathedral parish.  In fact, several distinctions need to be made.  The canons do not expressly deal with this subject as I will try to explain.

Canon law neither defines a cathedral nor deals directly with it.  Cathedrals are the places where the bishop takes possession of his diocese (c. 382), in which the diocesan bishop is to celebrate Mass often (c. 389), where ordinations are to be celebrated (c. 1011), and where the funeral and burial of bishops are to occur (cc. 1178, 1242).  As we can see, cathedrals are mentioned all over the code, but only in passing when dealing with other subjects.

The cathedral church, besides being the seat of the bishop, can also be a parish church.  It doesn’t have to be, but it often is.  If the cathedral is also a parish, then, properly speaking, a pastor is appointed to it.  If the cathedral church is not a parish, then, properly speaking, a rector is appointed to it.  Here the Code helps us out a bit (cc. 556-563).

Rectors according to c. 556, “are here understood to be priests to whom is entrusted the care of some church which is neither a parochial nor a capitular church, nor a church attached to the house of a religious community or a society of apostolic life which holds services in it.”  Now that’s a mouthful.  What does it mean?

Parish churches are clear enough.  I don’t believe there are any capitular churches in North America; they are more common in Europe where canons (people, not laws!) are appointed.  A chapter of canons is a college of priests who have the duty of celebrating the more solemn liturgical functions in a particular church (c. 503).  You see canons in the major basilicas of Rome, for example. They are often vested in mantelleta and biretta for mass or vespers.  Religious orders often have chapels (some the size of basilicas) where the faithful go to Mass.  For example, we could think of a church on the campus of a Catholic university campus, like Notre Dame.  It’s not a parish church, but people go there.  It would have a rector, not a pastor, in charge.  In other words, a rector is the priest in charge of a church which is not a parish, or a religious ‘chapel.’

A rector is limited in what he can do.  Because his church is located within the territory of a parish, he must not interfere in the work or authority of the pastor.  For example, he may not baptise; administer Viaticum, Confirmation in danger of death, or Anointing of the Sick; solemnise Marriage; conduct funerals; bless the baptismal font at Easter; or conduct processions outside the Church without the consent of the pastor.  His church, in other words, is not to be a rival church to the parish.  Perhaps the church is a shrine of some sort where the faithful gather.  The rector looks after it; however, and this is a good reminder, those faithful still belong to a parish.  The shrine and its liturgical functions ought not to substitute for participation in one’s proper parish.

Now, back to canon 556 and its definition of a rector.  Did you notice that little word, “here” (hic in the official text)?  Rectors are “here” understood to mean…  In other words, rector is understood to mean something different “there” in other places in the Code.  Unfortunately, there are no “other” places in the Code.  Some poor editing of the Code?  Perhaps.  Is there another definition of rector that somehow never made it in the Code, like a Cathedral Rector?  Maybe, but there doesn’t seem to be evidence for that.  So a rector is in charge of a church which is not a parish.

To answer the question put to me by a new “rector” of a Cathedral, “What are my duties?”, I would answer, that your duties are those of a pastor because that is, in fact, what you are (unless your Cathedral is NOT also a parish.)

How irregular: Catholic priests functioning as Anglican clergy

A reader sent me a link to an story about a diocese seeking the dismissal from the clerical state of three of its priests who abandoned the ministry and the Church and who are working as Episcopalian (Anglican, in Canada) clergy.  It’s not such an unusual occurence.  In my diocese we have a similar case.  The young priest left the Church, had his Orders ‘received’ by the Anglican bishop, and has set up shop as a pastor in one of the local Anglican communities.  Naturally, it causes scandal among the faithful.  So what is the status of such priests?

Well, first of all, they are irregular to exercise their Orders (c. 1044.1.2) because of any or all of heresy, apostasy or schism.  Furthermore, they are excommunicated for the same reasons (c. 1364.1).  In both cases, they are forbidden to perform any priestly ministry.  IN the latter case, they are forbidden from even receiving the sacraments.

Normally, in the penal law of the Church, to dismiss a cleric from the clerical state, a judicial process (a penal trial) is necessary (cf. c.1364.2 and 1334.2).  For all sorts of reasons, it is not always possible or feasible to hold a process.  We learned that the hard way in dealing with the clergy abuse cases; however, it is true in other cases as well.  Therefore, the Holy Father, granted some special procedures to be followed for the dismissal of clerics.  The American diocese has chosen to make use of those procedures so that the guilty priests can be dismissed from the clerical state. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t priests anymore, it just removes them from a special group of membership in  the Church — the clergy.  Further, it confirms the prohibition to use their sacred powers already in place by the irregularity and excommuncation.  If ever they repent, they can have the excommunication lifted, and even the irregularity dispensed (although there would be no reason to do that) and they would remain as lay members of the Church.

I would be willing to bet the former Catholic priests don’t give a hoot whether they are considered clergy in the Catholic Church or not.  It’s a sad situation.  But for the Catholic faithful it is probably good that they are dismissed from the clerical state.  Some Catholics don’t know any better and are heard to say, “Oh well, too bad about Fr. X but at least he’s a still a priest in the Episcopalian parish.”  Dismissal would help such people to understand that it’s not okay that Father has abandoned his ministry in the Church.

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned

NB: this post has been modified slightly from its original version.

Something I read on the internet about confession kind of gave me the willies. I am quite sure that no harm was intended by the writer; however, it provides an opportune moment to remember the importance of remaining silent about particular confessions.  The point of what I was reading was to remind children to whisper in the confessional so that sins cannot be overheard.

As a priest, many people ask me what it is like to hear children’s confessions, especially first confessions.  They joke about being pelted with popcorn and how it must be so funny to hear children tell their little sins.  And yes, sometimes it brings a smile to my face.  But I am also aware that these little children are confessing their sins to God, sins about which they feel guilty.  I am aware of how delicate their consciences are more than I am amused at how they recount their sins.  Such things need to be handled delicately.  After all, the children have been taught about the seal of the confessional.  They are baring their souls to God.  Trust is important to them.

Now all of us know that the seal of the confessional is absolutely inviolable for the priest who hears the confession (c. 983).  The seal binds the confessor under threat of excommunication latae sententiae (c. 1388.1).  Not so for an interpreter present at the confession, or for someone who overhears a confession, or who comes to a knowledge of sins from a confession.  The latter are bound, under pain of sin and of penalty (c. 1388.2), to observe secrecy.  But the difference is really a technical one.  The direct divulging of the secrets of the confessional by others is punishable by a penalty not excluding excommunication because it’s a nefarious thing to do.  Even if unpunished by ecclesiastical authority for whatever reason, to divulge what someone has confessed in the sacrament remains matter for sin.  Obviously, the priest who hears, judges and absolves the penitnent has the greatest responsibility.  In practical terms, however, that secrecy also affects everyone else.

So what does all that have to do with a parent writing about a child’s first confession?  Well, for most of us nothing.  And I quickly add that it is not clear that an actual sin confessed was being described; however, it was highly suggestive in this regard  But for that child, who might hear the parent re-telling the incident, or encouraging friends to read what s/he wrote on the internet, it might be a terribly embarassing, confusing, if not scandalous, thing.  Of course those involved didn’t intend that. They were trying to make a very valid point that we can’t forget to teach people to whisper.  But to publish the content of the overheard sin, or to re-tell it to others, is to break a sacred trust enshrined in our canon law.

We need to be careful.  The confession of anyone, young or old, deserves reverence.

Pastoral Moves and Stability of Office

It’s that time of year again, at least in my diocese, when pastoral assignments are about to be announced.  Thankfully, the rumour mill has been relatively quiet in my circle of communication.  Recently, a priest (from another diocese!, in case my bishop is reading) contacted me asking what rights a pastor has when it comes to being transferred.  It got me thinking that a lot of education needs to take place among clergy in this regard.  With new situations that the Church faces these days — merging/closing parishes, priest shortages, an aging presbyterum, etc. — the law on the transfer of pastors needs to better known.

Canon 522 states, “A pastor must possess stability and therefore is to be appointed for an indefinite period of time. The diocesan bishop can appoint him only for a specific period if the conference of bishops has permitted this by a decree.”  Many conferences of bishops do permit pastors to be appointed to set periods: in both Canada and the United States, pastors may be appointed for renewable six year terms.  It is important to understand that a pastor may be appointed for a set time, but that is not the norm.  Certainly, unless the decree apointing the pastor specifically mentions the fixed-term appointment, then the appointment is indefiinite.  (We need to understand also that there were significant changes to the law on the appointment of pastors in the 1983 Code from the 1917 Code, which I am not going to get into here.)  The point is, however, that the Code envisions that a pastor is not to be changed at will or often — certainly, when term appointments are allowed, such as six years, an idefinite appointment would seem to require that a bishop have the intention of leaving a pastor in office for longer than six years.  There is a certain wisdom to the stability of a pastor.  Canon 524 suggests that a pastor is given an appointment to a particular parish, not simply because he is a priest and can celebrate the sacraments for the people but because he, with his particular qualities, is suited to the needs of the people of that specific parish: “A diocesan bishop is to entrust a vacant parish to the one whom he considers suited to fulfill its parochial care, after weighing all the circumstances and without any favoritism. To make a judgment about suitability, he is to hear the vicar forane and conduct appropriate investigations, having heard certain presbyters and lay members of the Christian faithful, if it is warranted.”

In the last decade, if not longer, there seems to be a mentality that has settled into the mindset of clergy and laity alike, that pastors are supposed to be moved every six years or so.  We hear it said, “Oh, Fr. X is due for a move, he’s been there for seven years now.  Wonder who we’re going to get.”  Even priests seems to get antsy after six years in a parish.  Time for a change, they say.  My own opinion is that shuffling pastors around too often creates upset.  It takes several years for a priest to get to know his parishioners well, to discern their spiritual needs.  It takes several years to get pastoral plans up and running well.  It takes years, especially these days, for the faithful to trust their priests.  It seems to me that as soon as that good working relationship and trust begin to take hold, the pastor is often uprooted and sent to start the process all over again.  The faithful are left to say, “Well, what changes is the new pastor going to make.”  In family life we don’t see it as a virtue to pick up and move the family home every several years.  Stability of home life is cherished.  For priests themselves, there is the human fact that moving around so much is unsettling.  Have you ever wondered why priests, who, while not bound by a promise of poverty, nonetheless cart so many personal possessions, including furniture, from one parish to another? It’s because they are trying to create a home, with familiar surroundings.  (I don’t deny, either, that some of that is simply a wordliness that has crept into clerical circles.)

That being said, the reality of today’s Church has changed, even from 1983.  Even though the Code says that pastors have stability of office, the Code also recognises that the good of the Church trumps any singular situation.  Canon 1748 says, “If the good of souls or the necessity or advantage of the Church demands that a pastor be transferred from a parish which he is governing usefully to another parish or another office, the bishop is to propose the transfer to him in writing and persuade him to consent to it out of love of God and souls.” (emphasis mine)  Ultimately, a priest is called to serve the Church and its benefit. A bishop has great discretion, which we assume he won’t abuse, to move a pastor who is doing a good job, let alone, one who is not.  Financial concerns of the diocese, fallout from abuse scandal, priest shortages, among so many other things, all play a role in clergy assignments.

Times have changed.  We used to think we might not have to drive across town to attend Mass because there was a parish a few streets over.  Unfortunately that is not reality now.  Sometimes a priest must look after more than one church, you know, when parishes merge but both church buildings remain in use.  Even more, sometimes a priest must be pastor of more than one parish!  Maybe you thought that wasn’t possible, but it is!  Canon 526 states, “A pastor is to have the parochial care of only one parish; nevertheless, because of a lack of priests or other circumstances, the care of several neighboring parishes can be entrusted to the same pastor.” (emphasis mine)

I certainly don’t envy bishops their job when it comes to pastoral appointments.  I’m certainly glad that my bishop has taken the position that if a priest is happy in his assignment and it is going well, then we don’t need to move him.  That makes sense.  But we also need to be aware that the circumstances in which the Church finds herself demand flexibility and generosity on the part of priests and laity alike.

Denying Communion: not an easy matter

EWTN news has an item about a pastor in Italy who refused Holy Communion to a handicapped child.  As usual, the press didn’t quite get it right the first time, highlighting the fact that this was discrimination against the handicapped.  The bishop of the diocese in question issued a statement supporting the priest, having included many pertinent details: the family was from outside the parish, they had spoken to the priest several times, they were not attending Mass regularly, the boy had spit out an unconsecrated host when practising how to receive Communion, etc.

What really seems to be at stake in this case, is not that the child is handicapped, but that the family is non-practising.  It is a problem that is very common in this part of Canada, and, I assume, in North America: how to engage people who have been baptised Catholic, sacramentalized, as it were, but who are not practising their faith in any tangible way.  Here in Ontario, we have a publicly funded Catholic education system.  People send their children to Catholic schools, and, if truth be told, have their children baptised so that they can enrol in the Catholic system, but never come to Mass, live in irregular marriage situations, have no explicit intention of living the faith, but want, nonetheless, their children to receive the sacraments.  As a pastor, it is a question I face almost every day.  Do I just admit the baptised children to First Communion and Confirmation, knowing that they are, for all intents and purposes, uncatechised and won’t learn how to practise the faith?  Do I assume that their presence in a Catholic school system (which has its own problems with being ‘Catholic’) provides the realistic hope (spes fundata) of them being raised in the Catholic faith (c. 868) allowing me to baptise them?  It is not a matter of wanting to deny the sacraments, or of wanting only perfect Catholics to receive the sacraments; it is a matter of evangelisation, of engagement.

So the pastor in Italy asked the family in question to come to Mass for a few weeks before Holy Communion and they aren’t willing to do that?  The handicapped, of course, have different considerations.  Perhaps they don’t have the use of reason and are in a state of grace.  The Code, however, does not deny the sacraments easily. For Confirmation the only prerequisite is baptism, unless the person has the use of reason, in which case s/he must be suitably instructed (suitable for the person in question, obviously), properly disposed and be able to renew baptismal promises (c. 889)  Moreover, the faithful are bound to be confirmed (c. 890). For Holy Communion, it is necessary, for children, to have sufficient knowledge of what the mystery of Christ means and to be able to receive with faith and devotion.  Only in danger of death is the bar lowered, so to speak, requiring only that the child can distinguish the Eucharist from ordinary food.  I’m not sure a child who is not in danger of death and who has spat out an unconsecrated host, is able to understand the mystery of Christ or to receive with devotion.  In this case, it probably was certainly justified to refuse the handicapped child Communion.  That is not a judgment on him nor a deprivation.  It is a recognition that he is unable to receive properly and remains in a state of grace with or without the Eucharist.  If he weren’t handicapped?  Hmmm.  What to do? Stricte dictu he has a right to receive Communion, all things being equal.  Canon 914 provides some guidance.  The parish priest, with the parents, has the duty to ensure that children are properly prepared, as it is his duty to ensure that those who are insufficiently disposed are not admitted to Holy Communion. Thus asking the parents to come to Mass with the child for a few weeks before Holy Communion does not seem out of line: it would demonstrate the proper disposition of the child.

But what if the child wants to come to Mass and the parents won’t take her?  These are the difficult and heavy burdens of pastors who wade through all these considerations.  Some of the pastoral practices of the last forty or fifty years just don’t work any longer. We have to address the issues with new vigour, with new insight. Obviously they are phenomena that the Code hasn’t envisaged: nominal Catholics insisting on being admitted to the sacraments.  This news item from Italy gives us a chance to reflect.